The Origins of the Marin County Fair

So you think Marin is a newbie? Well catch this: The year following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is when Marin County held its first county fair. OK, that’s not exactly true. That first one was called the Sonoma-Marin Fair and it was held in Petaluma; but the year was indeed 1866.

Possibly, that first fair was not what you’d call a raging success, as it was 60 years before organizers would try it again. In September of 1925, near today’s corner of Redwood Highway and Grant Avenue in Novato, the first Marin County Fair and Harvest Festival took place. It featured, according to Marin historian Carol Acquaviva, “Exhibits and competitions focused on agriculture, horticulture and the domestic sciences.” That version of a Marin County Fair had a run that lasted but four years.

Better times were ahead. World War II ended in 1945 and a year later, at what today is the eight-acre, Marin Art and Garden Center on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. in Ross, the conservationist Carol Livermore brought together eight Marin nonprofits to stage the first Marin Art and Garden Fair (the accompanying photo is of the 1965 Marin Art and Garden Fair). 

This version of a county fair lasted through 16 years of growth until 1971, when it was relocated to the recently opened Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center with its 14-acre lagoon as a centerpiece for outdoor attractions and its $3.5 million Veterans Memorial Auditorium to house the indoor exhibits. In 1988, filmmaker and Marin resident George Lucas displayed Star Wars memorabilia; over the years other attractions have included Johnny Cash, The Band, John Lee Hooker and Peter Frampton. 

The Marin County Fair was the first in North America to become smoke-free; the first in the Bay Area to be certified as a green business; and the first to produce “The Greenest County Fair on Earth.” The fair regularly attracts 120,000 visitors over its five-day run. This year’s Marin County Fair opens on Friday, June 30th and closes on Tuesday, July 4th. Its theme is “Electrifying!”